by Donna M. Gralewski
My nephew has his face to the floor, reaching under his sister’s dresser with a back scratcher. He’s coaxing out the bunny that wedged itself between the wall and the furniture. I’m holding the flashlight. It’s unmoved by his gentle prods, so we seesaw the dresser from the wall. It catches on the carpet and the vanity wobbles. I hear the doorknob jiggle behind me, then soft taps of my niece asking entry to her own room.
“Hold on, Hon,” I tell her, “We found the bunny, but we had to pull out the dresser, so the birdcage is blocking the door right now.”
As soon as my husband and I arrived, she greeted me with a big hug, then retrieved a tiny brown bunny from a plastic pet carrier. Over the excited yapping of four small dogs, and the click-click-click of their nails on the tile floor, she told me there’s another one, but it’s lost in her room.
“It’s lost?” I said. I gotta hand it to my husband; on the drive up he said, “We have no idea what we’ll walk into when we get there.”
Bunny 2 makes a break for it, and my nephew snatches it up. “Wanna hold it?” he offers.
I say “no thanks,” but actually, I do. It’s cute, but it’s also wild. My niece and her dad discovered them in the bushes of their backyard, presumed orphans. I help my nephew reset the carrier with a blanket, pellet and water dishes. We push the dresser back and move the birdcage away from the door. The cockatiel observes but says nothing.
In the backyard, my brother-in-law has returned from his trek through all the local pet stores for an outdoor cage. Unable to find whatever he had in mind, he has a couple rolls of chicken wire, and perhaps the intention to build an outdoor enclosure. In the meantime, they’ve settled for the top half of a large-animal transport crate, which they placed on the ground so the bunnies have some time in the grass. He lowers on hands and knees to look in on them and push a few baby carrots through the air holes to supplement their pellet diet.
I finally get to plop down in a lawn chair with a glass of wine and enjoy the peaceful, woodsy view of the tall oak and evergreen trees. This part of north Florida is a bit more rural, but close enough to the bustling beach scene. Hubby and I often talk about moving up here, but for now my work at Cape Canaveral demands we live in Space Coast suburbia. The other reason we consider moving here perches on the chair next to me, tucking her skinny legs into her chest.
Which reminds me, “When did you get a bird?”
What I mean is, another animal? I wince, hoping she didn’t catch that. Her gaze drifts the length of the yard, into the thick brush.
“Uh, a few months ago. He was my Pop-Pop’s,” she says, wistful.
My niece and nephew’s first experience with death was a one-two punch. They mourned their great-grandfather, and then their mother, within months of each other. I try to remember, was it Pop-Pop I met that one time, almost ten years ago? For that matter, when was the last time I saw my ex-sister-in-law? I search for a warm or funny memory from before her addiction. Before the divorce and custody agreement. Before alternating holidays and supervised visitation.
I got nothing, and I’m pissed off because I have to say something to her, and none of that overdone “I’m here for you” shit either. I’m not here for you. I’m here with you, still bobbing in the wake of my own grandpa’s recent passing, and watching my dad walk down the same path. I want to tell her death is weird, this ineffable link between final and eternal. I want to prove to her that her mother and Pop-Pop are outside our experience of time and space, more alive and in a place more solid than we are—but there is only my grandmother’s voice: you can’t take away her grief. She’s got to deal with it in her own way.
My mother-in-law doesn’t understand why her son is indulging his daughter, the bunny-nurse.
“They’re wild animals,” she says over coffee. “Just let nature take its course.” Although, she did peek in the carrier earlier this morning. She didn’t see the smaller rabbit, and thinks my niece is sleeping late because she may have stayed awake with it until it died. Or she’s a teenager, I don’t say aloud. That species is often nocturnal, and while very intelligent, their depth of foresight remains to be seen.
“Or it’s buried in the blanket for all I know,” she adds, puffing on her vape pen, “I’m surprised they’ve lasted this long. I told her not to expect much. The little ones usually don’t survive without their momma.”
It is late afternoon when the teens emerge from their dens. My nephew mumbles “hey,” and plants himself in front of the TV and Nintendo, where he will remain for the duration of the day and require little else. I tousle his blonde bedhead as I walk behind the couch. It’s become a staple of showing affection since he’s long outgrown the cuddle stage. He’ll be eighteen in a few months—this is bullshit.
I shift my observation to my niece for any behavioral indicators to prove Mom-in-Law’s earlier hypothesis. She froths a breakfast latte and disappears to her comfy place. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear she was my own. She returns a little while later to prepare a bunny-bottle, and after breakfast, she takes them outside.
“Oh, you found the little one!” I said in an ear-piercing pitch. “Grandma said she looked this early this morning, and she didn’t see it, but it was probably all and snuggled up in the blankets, haha.” I’m talking too fast and I sound like an idiot. Thank God both bunnies survived the night.
“Have you talked to your dad today?” My husband asks when we get a minute alone. I haven’t, and I admit I’ve been kind of enjoying the break in calls about hospital care, treatment, who is appointed medical proxy if Dad becomes unresponsive or unable to make decisions. I’ve run out of things to talk about to avoid the cancer that has consumed forty percent of his lungs. For now, it will have to be enough that his oxygen levels are stable, and he has at least one family visitor every day.
Maybe I would’ve given a little more if I’d known he only had 68 days left.
When Hubby and I return from a grocery run with Memorial Day barbeque supplies, we find we’re late to a search-and-rescue operation. Everyone is scattered to the four-corners of the yard, stalking along the fence and bushes, the side of the house, the in-ground fire pit. My brother-in-law removes the metal panel from the chimney outlet and peers inside.
“What’s going on?” my husband asks his mother.
“One of the rabbits got out and ran off,” she lowers her voice. “I don’t know why they’re trying to find it. It’s obviously healthy enough to survive.” She shrugs and resumes her pretend search.
We join in the futile effort. I skim the expanse of the yard, rapt by a sudden vision of the bunny breaking free, bounding along an innate path, quick and evasive—back to where it belongs—an imperceptible victory to our well-intentioned hands, desperate to hold on to it for just a little while longer.
Donna M. Gralewski is a writer and Davidic dancer with a day job. Her nonfiction works have appeared in Ruminate and The Artiface. She studies ballet and Israeli folk dancing, aspires to writing poetry in Hebrew, and is going to need more coffee.